The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire):
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for what has been a mature and deliberative debate on a difficult issue. It is important to recognise the areas where there is agreement, regardless of which political perspective we come from. We all
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agree that it is right that parents, whether or not they have care of the child, should take financial responsibility for the child; that financial support should be reasonable and accurately reflect the true cost of bringing up a child; that, for the most part, support responsibilities work best when they are undertaken as a voluntary agreement between two adult parents, even if the administration has to be carried out by a third party such as the CSA through maintenance direct; and that where that cannot or does not happen, there should be the involvement of a statutory intermediary, previously mainly the courts and now the CSA.
There is agreement on both sides that for a variety of reasons, many of which we have heard explained todaysome of which I hope to cover in the next few minutescollectively as parliamentarians and legislators, we have not yet cracked how best to provide that intermediary support so that it can carry out its functions in the best interests primarily of the children, while recognising that it is a parent's primary responsibility to provide for their child and not that of taxpayers.
I want to thank the Liberal Democrats who have now published their weighty tome on their website. I was lucky enough to get a copy; Liberal Members had a wee conflab and decided that it was safe to give it to me. I must say that I would not miss "The Bill" tonight reading it. Most of the information it contains is already in the public domain, provided by the 158 parliamentary questions asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). It is extremely light on analysis.
Mrs. McGuire: Not at the moment: I do not want to interrupt my train of thought as I deal with the one thought in the Liberal Democrats' 10-point plan. They want to scrap the CSA, but they do not seem to have considered what that would mean in terms of legislation or implementation.
There is no quick fix to this issue, as the complexity of the problems highlighted in the debate shows. We cannot let children down, or allow my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) to continue to feel the shame that he said was part of his daily life. We must accept some collective responsibility for what has gone wrong with the CSA.
Normally, I do not give adverts for the Liberal Democrats, but their new document has been passed on to me. In my forthright, Scottish way I must tell the House that it contains just one, lonely, idea.
Mr. Heath: Clearly, the Minister has come to the end of her thought processes. She mentioned that the evidence supporting our contentions about the CSA were in the public domain, but the one piece of evidence not in the public domain is the report by the CSA's chief executive, Mr. Geraghty. That report will colour all our thoughts about the agency's future. Will the Minister say when she intends to publish it, and does she intend to place it in the Library?
Today's debate has highlighted yet again the breadth and complexity of the problems facing the CSA. Many of those problems stem from the way in which the agency was set up originally, as even some Conservative Members agree. The CSA was established with strong cross-party support, and it is fair to say that the complexity of the issues that it had to deal with was recognised only slowly by the Government of the day.
The principles underlying the CSA were correct, although some people suspected that the priority might have been saving benefits rather than helping children. However, a process in which up to 100 separate pieces of information could be demanded from parents was almost impossible to implement efficiently. Often, those parents no longer communicated with each other and were reluctant to deal with a third party. A forest must have been sacrificed to provide the paper for the continual stream of assessments that were sent out.
Mrs. McGuire: I think that we should just let my date remark lie. Scottish solicitors are good, but it really needed a Philadelphia lawyer to understand the complexity of that first case, which involved a young man who earned £175 a week but whose accumulated debt amounted to £11,500. He would never have paid it off in a month of Sundays.
Many of the problems highlighted in the debate do not concern errors made in the past few months, or even the past couple of years. They have their roots in things that have gone wrong over the entire period of the CSA's existence.
In 2003, a recognition of those problems compelled the Government, with the support of all parties in the House, to move to a better system. However, it is fair to say that we did not fully appreciate the major difficulties involved in simplifying matters and in trying to superimpose new procedures on such a deeply flawed system.
Mr. Laws: May we move away from the Minister's previous experiences, and focus on the reduction in the number of CSA staff? Last week, she signed off an answer to a parliamentary question that included information about staff reductions, but her colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), said earlier that staff numbers were rising. Which is it?
The hon. Gentleman anticipated my next sentence, as I want to echo the comments made by many hon. Members to the effect that CSA staff are dedicated but working under extreme pressure. To
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clarify the question about staff numbers: the hon. Gentleman asked a parliamentary question a month ago
Mrs. McGuire: That question has been answered, but he should by now have received from the CSA chief executive the actual figures, rather than the planned ones. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was right to say that by September 2005 there had been an increase in full-time equivalent staff in the CSA
Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman may huff and puff, but the chief executive's letter should have reached his tray either yesterday or today. If it has not done so, it should arrive tomorrow, but I have a copy.
Mr. Laws: My information is that the CSA employed 10,779 staff on 31 March 2004 and that, by last March, that figure had fallen by 1,000. Those figures cannot have changed, as the dates to which they apply have passed.
Mrs. McGuire: I am dealing with the most recent figures, which are for 30 September 2005. As part of the recovery plan, we increased the number of full-time equivalent staff in the CSA. That is my clarification of the matter, and if the hon. Gentleman still has a major difficulty, we can come back to it at another time.
In the debate, we heard about the experiences of many hon. Members, including Ministers. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in his opening remarks, extraordinary measures have been taken by peoplemainly by men, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) saidto avoid paying child maintenance. Every trick in the book has been used. Constituents of mine tell meeven the ones who earn reasonable salaries and admit that they have a financial responsibility for their childrenthat their payment assessment is too high because they have a car to pay for, a holiday to go on, or a social life to lead. That is what we are dealing withpeople who do not want to accept their personal responsibilities.
I could have come to the House and highlighted some of the areas where there has been improvement. Enforcement is one them, and I hope that that reassures those hon. Members who asked about that in the debate. In 200203, 2,383 enforcement orders were issued, but more than 6,300 were issued between April and November last year.
As for compliance, I could have told the House that the CSA collects £600 million from absent parents every year. I could have asked the House to accept that our contact with parents means that more than 400,000 now receive maintenance, either arranged through the agency or paid to them directly or indirectly. I could have asked the House to accept that, when it comes to supporting children, we are doing much better than anyone could have anticipated, with more than 529,000 children now receiving money because of the CSA's intervention. I could have said to the House that these are the improvements we have made and asked it
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to agree that we are moving forward. However, we are not asking the House to do that. We asked the new chief executive to commission a root and branch review of the agency when he took up his post. We have asked him to look at the agency's operations in the round to ensure that his findings, when they are eventually put before the House, give a strategic view of the situation.